SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'Em ...take our poll!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (March 1, 2007) Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a short work of fiction by Lisa See, which brings its reader to a remote province in 19th century China. Lily, its narrator, chronicles her "daughter days," "hair pinning days," and "rice and salt days," from her dotage or "sitting quietly days." Her narration is the author's vehicle for the portrayal of historical, cultural and societal events and traditions of the time and place.

The central thread of Snow flower and the Secret Fan revolves around the lao-tong or "old same" relationship of Lily and Snow Flower. Emotionally bound to one another at the age of seven, they will share the passage of their lives in person or through a form of secret women's writing, nu-shu, when apart. Book-'em members found this an engaging story. However, our real appreciation of this novel was for its unveiling of the traditions, practices, superstitions, obligations and dynamics of these Chinese women's lives.

Perhaps it is better not to look at the story itself too closely. There is little nuance or depth to the individual women. They are Cinderella, one a pre-glass slipper and the other a post-glass slipper character. And that image of "the smallest foot in the land" is apt as well since the girls' initiation into womanhood via the binding of their feet is easily the most compelling part of this book. Several members said they were unable to read all of the detailed depictions of this ritual. "I could literally feel their agony," said one reader.

Our conversation focused on the physical process, consequences and significance of the bound foot. How could a mother subject her child to such agony? But what choice did she have? The societal oppression of women and cultural versus biological determinants of beauty were some of the ideas we pursued. We also talked about the absence of coming-of-age rituals in our own society. Americans today lack a proscribed marker or acknowledgement of "adulthood."

Overall, our discussion may have been more substantive than the actual novel. That may be one of the most rewarding aspects of book club membership! It would be worthwhile having a member of your group ready to present some research on lao-tong relationships, foot binding and its origins, in-law dynamics, and other practices described, if this aspect of Snow Flower would appeal to your members. The book can also be read as "a good story," "not the highest quality of literature but holds a reader's interest," "interesting and readable." Snow Flower and the Secret Fan's look at a culture, though, is its true strength.

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